Contested Pasts: Protests and Professional Practice

As a historian, it would perhaps be remiss of me not to engage with historical events as they unfold. I have for therefore over the last few months concentrated my ongoing research on epidemics in Early Modern and Georgian England (as a scholar of death, burial and ritual), in preparation for providing talks and resources on this topic that may be of interest and use during this time of pandemic. (I’ll very briefly return to this work at the end.)

Having spent years studying Historical (principally during the late 1500s – early 1800s) and Contemporary archaeologies of identities; memory; commemoration; death; and violence; I can hardly ignore the events of the last couple of weeks; neither can I as a person. The felling of the statue in Bristol depicting Edward Colston during protests against racial discrimination has provoked much debate – both within and outside the profession.[i] While a number of archaeologists effectively defend these actions, others sympathise with views expressed by members of the public that frame such acts as the wanton wreckage of ‘Our Past’, and in the process seem to expose misunderstanding of both the forms and effects of racism; significance of the historic environment; and its capacity to perpetuate harm.

The apparently retaliatory attack upon the relatively well-known gravestone (in a village to the north of Bristol) of an early eighteenth-century enslaved young man, Scipio Africanus, that has occurred while writing this post, is particularly pertinent. As well as in conducting research on domestic and community sexual abuse and violence during this time (which of course cannot neglect the experiences of those enslaved), I am exploring how studies of death in the past might be employed for social benefit.[ii] I therefore intend to incorporate exploration of the significance of this grave, and its desecration, within my research and related educational initiatives – more on which I hope to say in due course.[iii]

The general lack of diversity among cultural sector audiences in the UK (as has been evident with regard to my audiences – a deficiency I am working to address), makes it more than likely that some of my readers may be among those who (to varying degrees) angered, or at best perplexed, by the damage to monuments in recent weeks indicated in the various forms of public commentary (such as responses to news articles; and on social media). That heritage professionals – those effectively charged with ‘preserving the past’ – some of whom appear to support the removal (or even demolition) of the Colston statue, may well make many (including a few archaeologists) equally riled and bemused.[iv] 

However, while I need respond to these issues, I am not qualified to provide fully-informed academic explanations, and certainly cannot (nor would intend to) speak for, at, or over those who support acts of monument destruction – particularly BAME individuals and communities.[v] I’ll therefore principally use this post to provide resources for further learning (which it is hoped may go some way in responding to the collective questions from students over the years regarding ethnicity and race). And I shall use it to share those that I have collated over the last few weeks with a view to improving my own professional – and personal – development, should these be of use to others in my profession.[vi]

With specific regard to the protests and damage to / demolition of statues, and related issues, I have sought articles and resources on this from BAME academics, authors, commentators, activist, and other communities.[vii] In seeking commentary by heritage professionals I have come across several by specialist historians, such as Bristol-based Dr Edson Burton; Professor Olivette Otele – whose comments on how it has at times been necessary to force the heritage sector into reshaping damaging or incomplete narratives of enslavement now seem particularly significant. However, I’ve so far encountered very little commentary by archaeologists in the UK – none from BAME professionals. (I apologise if I have missed relevant articles – or any work-in-progress: I’d love to hear about these!) [viii]

This dearth (as well as perhaps denoting limited understanding by the media of the breadth of issues studied archaeologically), in itself both highlights and reflects a lack of diversity and representation in archaeology and other heritage professions – especially among archaeological educators and researchers: a deficiency recognised for some time.[ix] While many within the profession are attempting to change this deficit, there is certainly much room for improvement.[x] I have also included links to a few articles by authors from outside BAME communities (and from within and outside the profession) who are engaged in relevant studies and sensitive to the issues at hand. These references are not in any way exhaustive, but are merely a sample of the surely numerous works that demonstrate specific knowledge, experience, and capacities for expression, that are greater than mine.[xi] Many of these works are by those who experience racism, and / or who have conducted detailed studied these issues; those seeking confirmation of their own bias must look elsewhere.


These events – and the process of writing this post – have provoked me to reflect further on how I might better my own working practices, and those of my profession, improving, facilitating and promoting inclusivity; and enhance knowledge in ways that strive to end racism, and work towards reparation for racism in the past, and today. In examining racism in the UK more closely over the last few weeks, I have become acutely aware that I yet have much, much, more to learn – and do.

This short (albeit intense) time of study has reminded me of that Historians have inflicted tremendous harm where we might have taken positive action. Selective narratives have been imposed that largely ignore the damage done by colonial systems, and the extensive long-term effects of enslavement, while emphasising the actions of a few in the abolition movement (yet often neglecting the actions of those enslaved and ‘freed’ in abolition). The heritage sector has also been deficient, not least through inadequate employment and audience diversity, and limited opportunities for engagement with the historic environment by still-under-represented communities. This must change in a way that not only addresses the inequalities of today, but seeks reparation for those of the past.

There’s little more that I’m able to say at this time on the issues touched upon above that might be of use (although I am again conducting research on memory and memorials, this work is in early stages of development).[xii] Having spent the last two weeks immersed in related articles and resources, I will strive to take these on board when developing research and educational events, and resources (and continue to learn about how I and others in the archaeological profession might oppose discrimination, and improve diversity and inclusion).

I shall therefore return to the work in which I’ve been engaged since the beginning of the Coronavirus crisis, exploring how study of death and disease might help some today process the difficulties of living with the threat of uncontrollable disease. Amid fears that a possible second wave may have an even more devastating effect, recent studies acknowledge that ‘racism, discrimination and social inequalities have contributed to the disproportionate impact’ on BAME communities. These two areas of study are clearly not as disparate as might at first be assumed.

I’m preparing a workshop that I aim to deliver for the Dying Matters Coalition either next month, in September, or in October, and which I hope may raise funds for the Hospice UK Emergency COVID-19 Crisis Appeal (which supports healthcare workers, including through a bereavement and trauma helpline). I am also exploring other COVID funds that target support for BAME communities, to which event entry and resource fees this year might be donated.

Should anyone be interested in this and other events, contact me to go on the mailing list; or check back here & through social medial, where I’ll announce the details as soon as they’re confirmed.

In the meantime, please consider donating to:

Majonzi fund: Covid-19 bereavement fund

The Runnymede Trust

Further Reading & Resources

(Links open in new tabs)

Opposition to and damage / demolition of memorials

Edward Colston’s statue and its demolition

News Reports


Post-demolition conservation, display & retaliation

Other statues and monuments, and general discussions

Memorial and monument destruction


Colonialism, Slavery, Racism, History & Heritage

Black History, Slavery & Colonialism

News reports, comments & articles

Interpretation, representation and reparation


Black Lives Matter Protests

Racism & White Privilege


Information and resources on challenging racism



[i] There seems to be a general confusion among many white people regarding the incidence and meaning of the terms ‘racist’ and ‘racism’ (as in the rebuttal of #AllLivesMatter in response to #BlackLivesMatter), with some imagining that this merely comprises occasional comments that might be easily shrugged-off, and perhaps avoided. Such attitudes often suggest by extension that those from BAME communities who protest against racism must be ‘over-reacting’ due to excessive sensitivity (thereby further perpetuating derogatory stereotypes); and that those protesting from outside BAME communities are merely ‘virtue-signalling’ by ‘jumping on the band-wagon’. Such attitudes may also act to neglect (or deny) the im-/balance of power that is a fundamental factor of racism. (See for example: Should I remove or reply to my racist Facebook friend?; Racism in the UK: ‘I feel like an alien’.) 

It is also evident in the (sometimes subconscious) ways that white individuals may deflect calls for equality from BAME people and communities, garnering sympathy from other white people by positioning ourselves as victims (on ‘white women’s tears’, see e.g. Weapon of lass destruction: The tears of a white Woman; About the Weary Weaponizing of White Women Tears; How white women use strategic tears to silence women of colour; How White Women’s Tears Threaten Black Existence). Compare this to the widespread traumatisation of BAME people and communities, e.g. George Floyd death: The mental health impact; Your Black Colleagues May Look Like They’re Okay — Chances Are They’re Not; Black Lives Matter: Students ‘need support’ over George Floyd death; 10 Ways For Non-Black Academics to Value Black Lives,by the death of George Floyd, and the numerous killings in recent months, weeks and days by police and in other racist attacks, including: Ahmaud Arbery in February, when jogging; Breonna Taylor, in her home in March; and Rayshard Brooks a few days ago – to name a few; also see e.g. George Floyd: Timeline of black deaths caused by police; UK police brutality is discussed here.

The other side of the coin is of white privilege, which many struggle to accept in the face of prevalent under-privilege among both BAME and white communities (and / or that many BAME individuals have achieved success, with greater authority and wealth than some white individuals). The notion of white privilege by no means ignores or minimises the existence or damaging effects of discrimination due to sex or gender, disabilities, poverty, or any other condition that differentiates the disadvantaged from those most fortunate in society. Nor does it frame BAME individuals and communities as victims, or dismiss achievements: on the contrary, this term acknowledges the greater level of success due to theadditional barriers that must for most be overcome. Rather, it denotes that BAME people generally experience another dimension of disadvantage and discrimination, in addition to, and further compounding, those experienced by white populations.

The concept of white privilege recognises that racism permeates society numerous ‘fields of action’, thereby structuring political, economic, and other relationships (see sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s work for these concepts – summaries and discussions are available, here and here, for example), privileging white people at the expense of BAME individuals and communities. For example, as acknowledged by the Department of Health, various studies make clear that health inequalities are suffered by some ethnic minorities, including the neglect of older ethnic minority people in UK research and policy; BAME communities – disproportionately suffering due to COVID-19 – are receiving both inadequate responses from the government, and witnessing a drop in the poorly-represented charitable & funding sectors – that have in any case seen a reduction in giving due to the virus. (For more information on intersectionality, see e.g. Why intersectionality can’t wait ; Misogynoir: where racism and sexism meet; When Feminism Is White Supremacy in Heels; What Liberals Get Wrong About Identity Politics; Intentions mean little when the impact hurts people.)

An additional problem is that the suffusion of inequality throughout social conditions and relationships (hence use of the term ‘endemic’) may effectively give the illusion that racially-based hierarchies are ‘natural’ and consequently inevitable: an impression sustained by biased representation (for example, see Black People “Loot” Food … White People “Find” Food; When The Media Treats White Suspects And Killers Better Than Black Victims; & Coverage Of Michael Brown Shooting Story Triggers Brilliant #IfTheyGunnedMeDown Hashtag), obscuring inequalities (e.g. see Racism in the UK: ‘I feel like an alien’; Privileged; The Social Construction of Whiteness: Racism by Intent, Racism by Consequence; ‘White Fragility’; and especially Reni Eddo-Lodge’s, Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race).

This idea that certain ‘races’ are superior to others (a tenet of Nazi ideology) also often goes hand-in-hand with notions that some within the supposedly-superior ‘race’ are ‘innately’ inferior, which by extension is used to explain disadvantages such as poverty. This has led to arguments that ‘inferiority’ should be controlled, by ‘breeding out’ through eugenics (which tends to promote the forced sterilisation of ‘undesirables’ – whether BAME communities, the poor, the disabled, those attracted to people of their own sex, transgender people, or many others); and / or genocide. The continued espousal of such ideologies (see for instance, UCL to investigate eugenics conference secretly held on campus; Geneticists decry book on race and evolution; The unwelcome revival of ‘race science’; Cambridge gives role to academic accused of racist stereotyping), in conjunction with other disparities, demonstrates that in many ways, society has improved little over the last century.

[ii] I’ve been working with a psychotherapist (who specialises in sexual abuse and violence, and is particularly interested in intergenerational trauma) in a project dedicated to employing archaeology in trauma therapy, which remains under development until health and safety issues may be mitigated. My current educational work on death and disease seeks to provide a platform for discussion (through the Dying Matters Coalition), while raising awareness of and funds for the Hospice UK Emergency COVID-19 Crisis Appeal.

[iii] Initial drafts of this post incorporated discussion of this work, which is why this post may seem somewhat disjointed; for the sake of brevity, I have extracted these sections, to be considered another time.

[iv] I shall set aside the more perplexing issue of why many are more angered by the destruction of statues, than of people, before going on to clarify my comments regarding audience composition in the following endnote.

[iv] These do not assume that I have no readers of BAME heritage. They recognise that the audiences of my educational lectures, courses, and other events have hitherto almost all been white (suggesting shortcomings in my approach that I am attempting to address); that I have sometimes encountered an apparent lack of understanding of racial and ethnic inequalities among audiences – very occasionally accompanied by racist comments; and to go a small way towards addressing the limited opportunities in the classroom and field to provide detailed information regarding these issues.

[v] For those unsure of the meaning of ‘BAME’, this is an abbreviation of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic. Non-BAME people should be cautious in using any classificatory term, by attending to terms used in self-identification (though aware that some terms used in self-description are not appropriate when used by others – the ‘N-word’ being a prime example); and beware of aggregating disparate individuals and groups. ‘Minority’ is problematic, especially when thinking globally: this is of course a relative term; its prospective use as a derogatory term – ‘demoting’ people – also urges caution. The classification ‘ethnic’ is contentious, due to its frequent employment by white people to classify ‘non-white’ people as ‘other’. People / Person / Women / Woman / Men / Man of Colour may or may not carry particular political significance, reflecting that to some extent the meaning of these terms have changed over time. For information on the identification, and some of these concepts, see e.g. J. Hutchison & A.D. Smith (eds.) Ethnicity, 1996; R. Jenkins, Rethinking Ethnicity, 2008; Social Identity, 2004; A. Loomba, Colonialism / postcolonialism, 1998; K. Woodward, Identity and Difference, 1997; L. Vail (ed.) The Creation of Tribalism in Southern Africa, 1987. An easily accessible informative source is Afua Hirsch’s podcast series, We Need to Talk About the British Empire, which both discuss the damaging effects of colonial powers erroneously imposing national and regional group identities.

[vi] I am still learning how I might be a better ally to those who experience racism, exploring resources, such as the useful White Supremacy Culture, that might provide guidance on how to do so more effectively. I have also found 10 Ways For Non-Black Academics to Value Black Lives particularly helpful.

[vii] In short BBC videos here, here, and here, BAME people (primarily in the US, including members of the general public, activists, cultural commentators, and an academic who specialises in race studies) briefly explain why they are protesting.

[viii] Should any readers be aware of relevant work in the UK, please let me know and I shall add links ASAP. Although I’m a member of various professional and specialist discussion groups and forums, and other organisations, as a low-income freelancer with multiple disabilities (being consequently quite isolated – generally unable to travel, and so attend conferences, or professional development events), I have few opportunities to hear about new and ongoing work that I do not encounter through my own work.

[ix] For example, see Archaeology Labour Market Intelligence: Profiling the Profession 2012-13; Under-Representation in Contemporary Archaeology; Archaeology must open up to become more diverse; Archaeology in the 21st Century Must Tackle Sexual Harassment and Lack of Diversity – Here’s How; Archaeologists, the Whitest People I Know; People of colour are painfully absent from our museums. Let’s change that. A general lack of diversity in academia is also recognised, e.g. see Reports show racial inequality in academia. Of course, we should not expect individuals to speak for marginalised communities, which carries the risk of objectification, reducing personal identities and experiences to those of an apparently homogeneous (yet disparate) group – see e.g. ‘Oxford University’s cultural elitism has been exposed by this student campaign’.

[x] Various individuals and groups have for some time championed improvements that might be made through, for example, mentorships; and endeavours to decolonise archaeology (however, such endeavours must acknowledge the inherent problems when implemented by those outside BAME communities). The main professional group – the CIfA, have established a Diversity and Equality Group with the aim of addressing these issue. While museums still have some way to go in diversifying employees, archaeologists might learn from the progress made by some curators.

The protests have had a positive affect for the archaeological profession, generating discussions that may extend awareness and acknowledge of both the responsibilities and failings of our discipline. They have extended opportunities to recognise lack of diversity; the significance of the historic environment and its conservation and interpretation in perpetuating inequalities; and the role played by our discipline to either continue discriminatory attitudes and practices, or effect change (particularly through education). Unfortunately, the cost, location, and format of some training and conferences, may restrict access for some – though the provision of virtual sessions due to Coronavirus may go some way to extending inclusivity. I am working through the material that has recently been made available through membership of professional bodies.

[xi] This by-no-means-comprehensive list includes material that I’ve either read previously and found useful; have read recently; or am working my way through. Nor do they necessarily reflect my own views.

[xii] As I have much catching-up to do, I’ll unfortunately be unable to engage in debate on this topic at present.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.